“It’s safer to work in the terma,” says Juliana, a 31-year-old bleach-blonde with a face younger than her years. “There are security guards, doctors and you know you’ll get paid. When I work here it’s like being on the street—I might be raped.”
Under the neon-green lighting of Balcony Bar—Copacabana’s premier sex tourism spot—Juliana sips away at the caipirinha I offered in exchange for 15 minutes of her time. She explains how Rio’s termas—brothels—have been raided by the police over the past year, forcing those who sell sex for a living to work elsewhere.
Juliana does not like to work at the bar but prefer one of Rio’s more upscale “saunas,” Centaurus [in the news earlier this month after the alleged visit by singer Justin Bieber]. This is despite the 12-hour shifts and steep fines for missing a day of work. It was a friend who first took her there, recommending it as a safe place to work and make good money. She was 23 and had recently lost her job at a bingo hall after the halls were outlawed by the government in a move to curb political corruption (halls were believed to be fronts for organized crime and money laundering). Juliana now has an eight-month-old son and explains that minimum wage is not enough to feed, clothe and care for them both.
Until last year, Centaurus was a relatively safe place to work. But on June 14, 2012, Rio’s public prosecutor’s officers arrived, armed with members of the Copacabana Police Precinct, and rounded up prostitutes, staff and the owner. They seized $150,000 in cash before leaving.
Juliana was in Centaurus when it was raided but luckily was with a client and managed to escape arrest. She later heard that the police filmed the raid, threatening to leak the footage to the local media thereby exposing the women’s identities unless they handed over more money. Thaddeus Blanchette, an anthropologist who has documented prostitution in Rio since 2004, is not surprised by this. “Blackmail accompanying raids is not uncommon,” he reveals. “It is one of the reasons why I am skeptical of using the police as neutral agents in the combating of trafficking.”
Centaurus was one of over 20 popular sex venues to be shut down in the period surrounding the Rio+20 Conference in June 2012. Raids continue to take place across Rio as Brazil steps up its image-cleansing campaign ahead of the World Cup. The crackdown is taking place despite the fact that exchanging sex for money is legal in Brazil and prostitution has been recognized as an official occupation by the Ministry of Labor since 2002.
Although prostitution is technically legal, profiting from it (by operating a brothel) is not — a point not wholly forgotten by Brazilian authorities. Until recently the police turned a blind eye for the right price but, with the World Cup on its way, raids are being carried out with the additional justification of tackling “criminal activity.” Sexual exploitation of adolescents, money laundering and drug-related activity have all been listed as reasons for the raids with no clear signs of evidence. Similar justifications were used by police in London’s historic red light district in October.
Human rights activists believe that brothel raids are part of a much wider effort to sanitize Brazil’s image. “It’s all about cleaning the city,” says Amnesty International Human Rights Advisor Renata Neder, who believes that Rio is following in the footsteps of other mega-event host cities (such as New Delhi and Beijing) by attempting to conceal its “undesirable elements.” “The city is not seen as a place to live, work or have social relations. It’s seen as a commodity. So when you apply this logic you need to hide the elements that you think make your product less valuable: the slums, homeless people, prostitutes, informal workers and drug addicts.”
One does not have to look far to see the effects of this “hygienist” policy. The Tourism Ministry has already clamped down on more than 2,000 websites that promote Brazil as a sex tourism destination. There have been reports of prostitutes being threatened with 15 years in prison for advertising their services in public pay phones. Countless other “unsightly” groups have been forcibly displaced, sometimes up to 70 kilometers from the downtown areas where they make their living. Renata is concerned that these evictions will continue to pile up as Brazil accelerates its preparations for the World Cup and foreign investments pour in.
For those working in Rio’s sex industry, the World Cup and the accompanying foreign investment is a double-edged sword. According to the Brazilian Tourist Board, 600,000 visitors are expected to come to Brazil for the World Cup. Like many other Brazilian prostitutes, Juliana intends to capitalize on the opportunity by working six days a week at Centaurus (which re-opened shortly after the Rio+20 media hype subsided).
Yet, accompanying the World Cup are the government’s urban regeneration policies and “cleansing” campaigns. Juliana knows that by working at the brothel she is risking arrest and public humiliation. But the alternative is no better. Working on the streets and in bars and hotel rooms brings different but equally serious risks: Without the relative security of the brothel, women like Juliana risk being attacked or raped.
By shuttering brothels and driving prostitutes outside, the police are also inadvertently doing that which they most want to avoid: making prostitution more visible. “Closed houses are better for everyone,” Juliana protests. “We’re not disturbing people that way and it’s safer for us.”
With the World Cup now only months away, it remains to be seen whether concern for the welfare and rights of Rio’s sex workers will prevail against the apparently more pressing concern of cleansing the city of its problem populations. Until brothels are once again tacitly tolerated, Rio’s streets, bars and hotels are the alternative for thousands of sex workers across the city for whom selling sex is a viable, if ever-risky, means of making a living.